A Massachusetts-based research organization says that a Reading power plant isn’t as environmentally friendly as its clean energy designation suggests, an assertion the company that runs the plant says isn’t true.
A recent report by The Partnership for Policy Integrity analyzes air pollution permits of 88 biomass power plants across the country.
The Evergreen Community Power Plant in Reading that powers United Corrstack’s facility, which manufactures paper products, was one of them.
The company received a $39 million clean energy grant from the federal government, covering nearly a third of the $140 million it cost to build the plant in 2008.
But the report outlines several instances in which the organization asserts the plant’s operations haven’t been so clean, such as inconsistent pollutant testing, the burning of contaminated materials and high rates of hydrogen chloride emissions.
As of 2013, the state Department of Environmental Protection found the plant compliant with all regulations.
The plant burns mostly wood, which is thought to be a relatively clean energy source when compared with coal or natural gas.
But a 2012 evaluation funded by the Department of Energy cited in the report states that although the plant primarily burns wood for fuel, it also incinerates “significant amounts of paper, plastic and other debris.”
A 2012 report by the same environmental organization said the facility “burns off construction and demolition waste, containing glues, resins and other treated wood, as well as plastic and other foreign debris.”
Plant General Manager Chady Zablit said the assertions are biased and inaccurate.
“The fuel utilized by ECP today is primarily composed of woody biomass,” he said, “not municipal solid waste as the report insinuates.”
Zablit explained that 85 percent of what the plant burns is wood, with a small amount of carpet, burlap, metals and plastics that has been examined by independent processors.
He said the report’s claim that Evergreen burns treated wood is false.
“They refer to stuff we cannot burn, we cannot process even if we had the permit for it,” Zablit said in reference to the boiler’s capabilities.
The findings also suggest that the facility is an incinerator, the study said, although it’s not permitted as one. But Zablit said that each piece of material must be screened before it’s sent to the boiler.
“You can’t just dump anything in there,” he said, and clarified that the facility is not an incinerator.
A 2011 DEP inspection showed that the 30-day rolling average of hydrogen chloride emissions for the plant was 30 times higher than what its permit allows, according to the report.
DEP spokeswoman Lisa Kasianowitz confirmed that the DEP inspection did find that the plant significantly exceeded its hydrogen chloride limit.
“Nevertheless, Corrstack asserts that their monitoring equipment was not providing accurate data at the time this reading was taken,” she said.
United Corrstack replaced its monitoring system late the same year, according to the DEP.
The report also states that in 2010, the facility’s ash handling system failed, along with its systems for controlling hydrogen chloride and nitrogen oxide emissions.
“That’s a huge problem from a public health perspective,” study author Mary S. Booth said of the findings.
Zablit said the ash is routinely tested by the company’s quality control staff, and that ash tests dating back to 2010 show that it isn’t hazardous.
The same DEP inspection also found that Evergreen had failed to record emissions data for some pollutants, but the company asserts that it has completed all required air testing.
The plant was found to be in compliance with testing standards in 2013, according to the DEP.
Zablit said most of the data in the report was gathered during the plant’s startup period, and that the facility has received no notice of violation of its EPA air permit since it was issued in 2007.
What designation means
The plant is considered a minor source for hazardous air pollutants, which is how it qualified for the clean energy grant. To maintain this title it must emit less than 25 tons of air pollutants a year, and no more than 10 tons of any one pollutant.
Total hazardous air pollutants were projected to be 23.9 tons per year, according to Evergreen’s estimates.
Booth said many of the plants her organization evaluated toed similar lines.
“When you consider that they’re getting the same subsidies as wind and solar companies, it’s incredible,” she said, “because they’re pumping out a lot of pollution.”
Under Environmental Protection Agency regulations, Evergreen is legally able to burn a small amount of debris along with its wood, which the report says blurs the lines between renewable energy that’s been portrayed as clean and toxic waste incineration.
Biomass energy usually refers to the burning of plant-based materials, commonly wood, and has been promoted as a cleaner and greener alternative to coal and natural gas plants.
As a whole, the study asserts that as biomass energy continues to become more popular, findings indicate that governmental agencies should be more heavily regulating such plants.
“With modern emissions controls, biomass electricity plants pollute more than coal per unit of energy produced,” the research organization reported.
Zablit said Evergreen is an example of the movement of manufacturing companies becoming less reliant on foreign oil and reducing overall carbon footprints.
“We would like to clearly state that we are proud of our achievements, efforts and our records and we have the facts to prove it,” he said.
The Partnership for Policy Integrity in Pelham, Mass., says it provides science and legal support aimed at educating the public on environmental impacts of energy development.
Contact Laura Newberry: 610-371-5081 or email@example.com.
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